HARARE, Zimbabwe -- The country's economy is crumbling and its people are struggling to survive in the face of nearly 4,000 percent inflation, food and fuel shortages and the prospect of power cuts for up to 20 hours a day. Yet longtime Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is spending almost $4 million on a grandiose project -- a monument to himself.
Work has already begun on a museum dedicated to the life and dubious achievements of the 83-year-old president, in his home district of Zvimba, 65 miles west of the capital, Harare.
"As we speak right now, groundwork for the construction of the museum is at an advanced stage," a government minister said. "The president wants the project to be speeded up so he can open it next year, possibly after winning the [presidential] elections."
Mr. Mugabe's policies, such as the seizure of white-owned farms, are blamed for an economic crisis in which inflation leaped to more than 3,700 percent in April. Unemployment is running at about 80 percent and there are severe shortages of staple foods such as corn and wheat.
Construction of the grand edifice, which will cover an area the size of a soccer field and has been dubbed the "Mugabe shrine," is being supervised by the local government minister, Ignatius Chombo.
Materials are understood to have been obtained from countries with regimes friendly to Zimbabwe, such as Malaysia, which supplied the timber for Mr. Mugabe's lavish Chinese-built residence in Zvimba.
Once complete, the museum will house Mr. Mugabe's prison letters, photographs from the war in the 1960s and '70s against the minority-white government of Ian Smith, his old clothes and copies of his famously fiery, and often intemperate, speeches.
The museum will also display some of the many gifts the president has received during his 27 years in office from those who have enjoyed his patronage -- most of them members of his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF. Pride of place is expected to be taken by a 16-foot-long stuffed Nile crocodile -- a recent birthday gift from Mr. Mugabe's loyal ministers and officials.
Presenting the 50-year-old male crocodile to the president in February, Webster Shamu, minister for policy implementation, said it "symbolized maturity, distilled and accumulated wisdom and majestic authority -- attributes that have been characteristic of the president's leadership during the protracted anti-colonialist struggle and even in the current struggle against imperialist and neo-colonialist forces."
It was during the presentation that Mr. Mugabe revealed he had been discussing plans to build a "shrine" in Zvimba and that the crocodile could be placed in it. Mr. Chombo confirmed being involved in the project, though he declined to discuss the costs.
"The idea has been discussed and we are moving on to the planning stage," he said. "It would be a shrine for the local community and one that would be used to depict the president's life history and legacy, as well as aspects of the liberation struggle."
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change accused the president of self-aggrandizement. "This is no time for self-glorification for individuals, and it shows how skewed are this government's priorities," said party spokesman Nelson Chamisa. "People are struggling to survive, and this will be an island of opulence in a sea of poverty. It's going to be a white elephant, and it is a waste of state resources."
Mr. Mugabe's extravagance is well-known. Besides his five official residences, he owns a number of private houses including the most recent addition, a palatial three-story, 25-bedroom, $15.8 million residence in the exclusive Harare suburb of Borrowdale.
Stephen Bevan reported from Cape Town, South Africa, and Michael Gwaridzo from Harare.